Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 5 & Pieces for Solo Piano

Bertrand Chamayou, Orchestre National de France, Emmanuel Krivine

Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 5 & Pieces for Solo Piano
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Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 5 & Pieces for Solo Piano

Bertrand Chamayou, Orchestre National de France, Emmanuel Krivine

Following his award-winning survey of Ravel’s complete solo piano works, Bertrand Chamayou takes on some of the most brilliant yet fiendishly virtuosic music in the French Romantic repertoire on his new Saint-Saëns album, drawing together the two most famous of the composer-pianist’s five piano concertos - the epic No.2 and the irresistibly exotic No.5 ‘The Egyptian' - alongside a bouquet of lesser-known solo pieces and études that will delight pianophiles.

These include the effervescent yet notoriously difficult Étude en forme de Valse with its breathtaking bravura finale, and the entrancing Les Cloches de Las Palmas inspired by the bells Saint-Saëns heard ringing out in the Canary Islands. ‘I’m always charmed by Saint-Saëns,‘ says Chamayou. ‘There’s an attraction to the exotic, the bizarre, sensual fantasy, that’s very curious for a composer that we think of as so academic. And there’s a real sense of voyage in the music of Saint-Saëns that I find fascinating.’

He is joined by the Orchestre National de France and its formidable conductor Emmanuel Krivine for an album that promises fireworks, champagne and just a few puffs of opium.  

Review

Eight years ago, on a trip to Paris, I visited Saint-Saëns’s tomb at Montparnasse Cemetery. Not out of some kind of morbid curiosity, but instead to commune with a composer whose music I love but feel is now unfairly overlooked for the more imposing Romantics. Bertrand Chamayou’s recording of Saint-Saëns’s piano music is a timely reminder of the composer’s brilliance and inventiveness. Not only that, the album serves to highlight Chamayou’s formidable pianistic talent. Although no pianist myself, I would hazard a guess that Saint-Saëns’s dramatic and superabundant Piano Concerto No. 2 is rather a fiendish beast for your average musician. Chamayou, however, is no slouch, and from the unaccompanied opening arpeggiated chords and scalic runs of the first movement, to the playful skipping melody of the second movement, that he remains in command is, frankly, absolutely commanding.

In Saint-Saëns’s music there is no rest for the wicked, and the following Piano Concerto No. 5 is similarly virtuosic and challenging in its demands of the pianist. While the solo works – a mazurka, a handful of etudes, and the Valse nonchalante – provide the listener’s ears with a rest from Saint-Saëns’s occasionally grandiloquent orchestral writing, Chamayou is again put to task, and – naturally – impresses.


Alexandra Mathew is a classical music specialist at Readings Carlton.

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